2. The fort

Carman Hill

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Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright January 2019, Lairich Rig; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.
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The fort

As related at CanmoreExternal link, the fort was discovered on aerial photography in 1954 by Dr K A Steer (Kenneth Arthur Steer). It is variously described as either "Iron Age" or "Dark Age"; in Scotland, the term "Iron Age" can include the period of the Roman occupation of parts of Britain. At the time of writing (early 2019), the fort has never been excavated. The following diagram of its layout will serve for reference in subsequent sections of this article.

 Carman Hill Fort, from OS 1:2500 map, 1963 revision
(From the 1963 revisionExternal link of the OS 1:2500 map.)

Many people who visit the hilltop might associate the fort with the prominent group of boulders to be seen there, but the actual fort is far more interesting, and is much larger: it consists of an inner enclosure, an outer enclosure, an annexe on the eastern side, and some hut circles. A couple of pages are devoted to the fort and nearby antiquities in the book "Archaeology Around Glasgow" (Susan Hothersall, Glasgow Museums, 2007). A diagram of the fort's layout is given in the book. This differs in some respects (such as the location of the hut circles) from the one shown above, which is based on the 1963 OS mapExternal link.

The main features are not difficult to see when some familiarity with the basic layout of the fort has been acquired; those features are illustrated in subsequent sections of this article. The hut circles, on the other hand, are hard to make out. A few examples of these will also be shown; some can be fairly securely identified as hut circles, while others are doubtful.

Legal protection

One thing worth stressing is that the fort is a scheduled monumentExternal link; as such, it is legally protectedExternal link.

This rules out certain activities, such as (for example) use of a metal detector. That a reminder of the site's legal status is needed is shown by the fact that a few memorial plaques have appeared here in recent years; at the time of writing, one had been attached to a large boulder. Wherever some plaques appear, others tend to follow.

A more recent and more blatant act was the enlargement of a small cairn at the summit into a much more conspicuous one, apparently by someone who wished to turn it into a personal memorial. The only saving grace is that the material used to enlarge the cairn seems not to have been taken from the fort itself, but was mostly red sandstone brought from elsewhere (not necessarily from the quarry at the foot of the hill, although red sandstone is also found there). A small wheelbarrow was used to bring the material up to the top of the hill (on one occasion, I saw the barrow lying empty near the large boulders). Since then, the cairn seems to have been reduced to something like its former size, though only after the matter was highlighted in a local newspaper.
NS3779 : Marker cairn on Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : Marker cairn on Carman Hill by Lairich Rig(left) Late 2014. In this more modest form, the cairn had been here for less than a decade.
(right) The cairn is shown, inappropriately enlarged, in early 2018; it was subsequently reduced.

No one would (I hope) think to erect a memorial cairn within the bounds of Stonehenge, or to screw memorial plaques to its upright stones. The same should be true of the fort on Carman Hill. I can understand the desire to create memorials, but this is not an appropriate place for them.

Importance

In Leslie and Elizabeth A Alcock's report on the excavation at Dumbarton Rock, Carman Hill is also mentioned. The report in question can be found in "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland" (PSAS), volume 120 (1990), pages 95149. The title of the paper is "Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 197484: 4, Excavations at Alt Clut, Clyde Rock, Strathclyde, 197475".

The report as a whole runs to over 50 pages, but the references to Carman Hill are to be found on pages 101103. As pointed out there, Carman Hill's fort overlooks Dumbarton Rock from a distance of 6 kilometres. The oval inner enclosure measures 60 metres on its long axis. The outer enclosure has an overall diameter of 180 metres. The Alcocks point out that the outer enclosure is doubled on the north-eastern side, which is the direction of easiest approach. This is the part referred to in the present article as the annexe. The authors note that forts with this kind of structure belong, when they can be dated, to the early medieval period rather than to the pre-Roman Iron Age.

They also draw attention to the fact that Carman is "in terms of Western Scotland a large fort"; that the Dalriatan stronghold of Dunollie would fit, in its entirety, within Carman's inner enclosure; and that the major fort of Dunadd covers only about a quarter of the area contained within Carman's outer enclosure. The authors note that this implies a major concentration of political and military power at Carman, and that it is hard to see how this could have co-existed with a royal presence at Dumbarton Rock; they therefore suggest the possibility that the large hill-fort of Carman was the immediate precursor of Dumbarton Rock as a seat of power, and that Carman may have been abandoned because it was, in terms of suitability for trading, located inconveniently far from the sea. The paper makes it clear, though, that these are hypotheses only, since Carman Hill's fort has never been excavated.

The summit

The cairn previously mentioned is not quite at the highest point of the hill. The first of the pictures below was taken from the actual summit.
NS3779 : The summit of Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : The summit of Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : The top of Carman Hill by Lairich Rig(left) The summit itself lies within the inner enclosure.
(middle) Carman Reservoir is in the right background, with Dumbarton Rock behind it.
(right) The summit, riding above the mist.

Inner enclosure

The inner enclosure is in the form of an oval, its long axis oriented east-west. It is about 70 metres long, and about 45 metres wide (north-south). Note that my own measurements may differ slightly from those given in the Alcocks' report, mentioned above.

Most of the line of inner enclosure can be followed quite easily on the ground. Note that, on the northwestern side of the fort, it coincides with the line of the outer enclosure, as shown in the diagram of the fort's layout. There is a gap in the inner enclosure on the WSW, and another one on the southeast, where some exposed rock appears on the line of the enclosure. Again, the diagram shows these gaps. All of the following pictures show the inner enclosure, and they are all views directly along its course:
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of inner enclosure by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of inner enclosure by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of inner enclosure by Lairich Rig(left) View clockwise along the southern side.
(middle) View anticlockwise along the western side.
(right) Anticlockwise; the gap on the WSW end.
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of inner enclosure by Lairich RigNS3779 : Rocks on the line of the inner enclosure by Lairich RigNS3779 : Rocks on the line of the inner enclosure by Lairich Rig(left) Anticlockwise view along the southern side.
(middle) Anticlockwise view; the southeast gap is on the near side of the exposed rock.
(right) Clockwise view; the southeast gap is on the far side of the exposed rock.

Outer enclosure

The outer enclosure measures, east to west, about 160 metres across (or about 180 metres if the 20-metre-wide annexe on its eastern side is included). North to south, it measures about 145 metres across. As the diagram shows, the inner enclosure is attached to the northern edge of the outer enclosure.

The outer enclosure is best seen before the fresh bracken springs up (the inner enclosure, a little further up the hill, is not affected by it). When following the path (not the vehicular track) that leads up from the northeast of the old quarry at the foot of the hill, the line of the outer enclosure is encountered 20 metres before the path swings off to the right, towards the most prominent group of boulders. Do not be misled by the scattered boulders that can be seen just below that line; these have been dislodged from the outer enclosure (as revealed by the fact that those boulders all occur below that line). When looking along the line of the genuine boundary, it will be seen that there are not just partially-buried rocks at irregular intervals along its course, but that a continuous boundary is visible (at least, when bracken is not present).
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: path crossing line of outer enclosure by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of outer enclosure by Lairich Rig(left) The path leading up the hill crosses the outer enclosure here.
(right) A view anticlockwise along the outer enclosure from that point.
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of outer enclosure by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: line of outer enclosure by Lairich Rig(left) A view clockwise from the outer enclosure's southern extremity.
(right) A view anticlockwise from the same point.

Annexe

As noted above, the outer enclosure is doubled on the northeastern side of the fort to enclose a space that is here referred to as the annexe. Of the two long "walls" (irregular lines of boulders) enclosing the annexe, the inner one is to the southwest, and separates the annexe from the main body of the fort, while the outer one is to the northeast. Again, see the diagram of the fort's layout. The curving annexe is about 20 metres wide and about 140 metres long (walking distance, not straight-line distance).
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: western wall of annexe by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: western wall of annexe by Lairich Rig(left) Looking along the inner (southwestern) wall of the annexe.
(right) Further along the same wall.
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: eastern wall of annexe by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: eastern wall of annexe by Lairich Rig(left) Looking along the outer (northeastern) wall of the annexe.
(right) Further along the same wall.

A short but particularly well-preserved section of the fort's outer wall can be seen on the east; it is part of the outer wall of the annexe:
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: eastern edge by Lairich RigThe outer wall of the annexe is in the foreground.

Hut circles

These can be difficult to see, and I cannot be certain about all of those shown here; as noted earlier, different diagrams of the fort disagree, to some extent, in their placement of the hut circles. The "Archaeology Around Glasgow" book mentioned above (which I will henceforth refer to as the "AAG book") states that "up to 15" hut circles have been identified; the words "up to" imply uncertainty about at least some of them.

As defined in the glossary of Ian Armit's book "Celtic Scotland" (Historic Scotland, 2005), a hut circle is "the remains of a prehistoric roundhouse, commonly surviving as a ring-shaped bank". A couple of pictures of hut circles elsewhere (specifically, on the moors above Greenock) are included below by way of illustration, and for comparison:
NS2973 : Hut circle on Lurg Moor by Lairich RigNS2973 : Hut circle by Lairich RigTwo hut circles on Lurg MoorExternal link above Greenock.

The hut circles within Carman Fort, where they can be identified as such, seem to be very indistinct round hollows. Some examples are shown next, with my (very subjective) opinion on how likely they are to be genuine hut circles:
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: possible hut-circle by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: possible hut-circle by Lairich Rig(left) Probable: within the northern end of the annexe.
(right) Possible: between the inner enclosure and the annexe.
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: possible hut circle by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: possible hut circle by Lairich Rig(left) Probable: just within the southern extremity of the outer enclosure.
(right) Probable: the same one, viewed from the side.
NS3779 : Path on Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : Path on Carman Hill by Lairich Rig(left) Doubtful: two hollows centred on green patches to the left (south) of the path.
(right) Doubtful: the same hollows, viewed in the opposite direction.

The diagram based on the 1963 OS map and the one in the AAG book agree in placing three hut circles within the northern end of the annexe. The first of the above images shows what appears to be the most northerly of that group. The 1963 map shows two hut circles between the inner enclosure and the annexe, while the AAG book shows three there; the second of the above images shows what may be one of that group.

The 1963 map and AAG book agree in the placement of a hut circle just inside the southern extremity of the fort's outer enclosure. The third and fourth pictures, above, show that example. The third picture is from just uphill of it; specifically, from the lowermost group of boulders.

The fifth and sixth pictures show two more possible examples, but both are doubtful; the areas in question include two green patches beside the path, but they are a little larger than that. The 1963 map places two hut circles somewhere near here, but a little further to the south, while the AAG book differs greatly in its disposition of hut circles within the same general area. I cannot therefore be certain about those two examples; the pictures have been included mainly for interest.

Sunken approaches

The Canmore reportExternal link for the fort mentions "stone ramparts, ditches, and sunken approach roads". The hollow way that approaches from the east is easy to see; it passes the northern end of the annexe, and then winds around the northern side of the fort, to enter on the eastern side:
NS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: sunken approach road by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill-fort: sunken approach road by Lairich Rig(left) Looking up towards the northern extremity of the fort.
(right) Looking back down the same approach.

The Canmore report notes the presence of another hollow way, on the west, although "this may be of recent origin":
NS3779 : Carman Hill: a hollow way west of the fort by Lairich RigNS3779 : Carman Hill: a hollow way west of the fort by Lairich Rig(left) A view down the hollow way on the west.
(right) A view back up it, looking towards the western edge of the fort.

Boulders

Although the main group of boulders (really exposed bedrock) is certainly not the fort, it is, for casual visitors to the hill, the most conspicuous feature. The fort itself was not discovered until the 1950s, but the boulders had certainly not escaped notice before then. According to a local tradition that was current in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Druids were responsible for having placed the stones here. At that time the Druids were, in the popular imagination, responsible for many such prominent features; compare, for example, my comments about the Kempock Stone at Gourock.

Those traditions remained in living memory until at least the 1930s, when Iain C Lees observed in his 1933 book "The Campsies and the Land of Lennox" that "the stones on the summit are supposed to mark the site of a Druid temple"; since then, those ideas have been woven into some modern fiction, but, otherwise, they have mostly been forgotten.

(It is at least possible that, when those traditions originally arose, the enclosures were noticed, and not just the prominent groups of stones. If so, a natural consequence would be the attaching of more importance to the presence of the stones.)

The boulders suffered some damage in the year 1863, as recorded in the 1927 book "The Old Vale and Its Memories" (by J G Temple and James Ferguson): "When the Prince of Wales (later King Edward) was married to Queen Alexandra, the Vale rejoiced by a fireworks display in front of the Hall, which was then just newly finished. To Carman Hill the youths carried coals, wood, tar, etc., and had a great bonfire which could be seen in many counties. The fire cracked the big rocks badly and the damage can be seen to this day". Such damage is unfortunate, but it should be borne in mind that no one knew at the time that this site had once been a fort.

Among the lichens on these boulders is Xanthoparmelia conspersa, a species that grows on acid rocks, and which requires full sunlight and organic nitrogen.

As well as the main group, there are less conspicuous groups of boulders: one is above the main group, and another is below it. There are some outcrops still higher up, under the modern cairn, but I have not included them here.
NS3779 : Boulders on Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : Boulders on Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : Rocks on the line of the inner enclosure by Lairich Rig(left) The main group of boulders.
(middle) A small group lower down, not far above the line of the outer enclosure.
(right) A small group higher up, on the line of the inner enclosure.
NS3779 : Boulders on Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : Ancient hill-fort on Carman Hill by Lairich RigNS3779 : Boulders on Carman Hill by Lairich RigThree more views of the main group.

It may be wondered just what has happened to the stones that must once have formed a nearly-continuous boundary in the inner and outer enclosures of the fort. As the 1:25000 OS map shows, a dry-stone wall passes through the site, crossing the outer but not the inner enclosure; it is possible that some of the stones ended up in that wall. Others may have been removed centuries earlier for various purposes. However, it is likely that many of the boulders that can now be seen strewn on the lower slopes of the hill were originally part of the fort's walls.

KML

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